The Tailor Of Panama

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Review byMatthew Turner20/04/2001

3 stars out of 5
Running time: 109 mins

Character-driven spy yarn that is part thriller and part black comedy, featuring two superb central performances.

John Boorman’s latest film opens with what, initially, seems to be an oddly familiar image: Pierce Brosnan over-looking the Thames from MI6 HQ, awaiting orders from his superior. However, it swiftly transpires that Brosnan’s cheerfully amoral Andy Osnard is the polar opposite of James Bond – exiled to Panama in disgrace, his eyes light up when he’s informed of the high levels of corruption that exist there.

Once in Panama he decides he needs his own personal ‘man in Panama’ and he seeks out Harry Pendle (Geoffrey Rush), an ex-pat who is tailor to the rich and famous. Osnard knows Pendle’s secret (that he is not, in fact ‘of Saville Row’, but that he learned tailoring in prison while serving time for arson) and he manipulates Pendle into giving him information he can use, either from the gossip of his powerful patrons (including the President), or from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), who works for the canal directorship.

However, Pendle is as expert at weaving stories as he is at spinning yarn for his suits (the script is packed with colourful tailoring metaphors) and he, in turn, manipulates Osnard in order to help himself and his friends out of their financial problems…

Though Le Carré’s plot is partly an affectionate nod towards Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana (also made into a 1959 film starring Alec Guinness), this adaptation (by Boorman, Andrew Davies and Le Carré) is given an extra dimension thanks to the brilliant casting of Brosnan, who takes great delight in subverting his James Bond persona – Osnard is coarse, bullying, venal, greedy and out for anything he can get.

Particularly amusing are his most un-Bond-like (but still equally effective) chat-up lines and his almost childish delight in vulgarity, particularly during a scene set in a brothel where he and Harry sit on a vibrating bed while watching a porn film.

In fact, Brosnan’s performance is a joy from beginning to end, and is easily the best thing in the film. Rush is equally excellent, however, investing Harry with the kind of mannered nervousness that seems to have become his trademark, and pulling off some unexpectedly moving scenes towards the end. There’s good interplay between him and Brosnan too, culminating in one of the most bizarre scenes you’ll see all year, in which Osnard and Pendle have a secret discussion while ‘undercover’, dancing cheek-to-cheek in a gay club…

As well as the two leads, there’s also good support from Jamie Lee Curtis (who seems underused, but is nonetheless effective), Brendan Gleeson (who was in Boorman’s The General), Catherine McCormack (as Brosnan’s conquest at the embassy), Dylan Baker (as a bonkers US General) and a host of familiar British character actors. It also features Daniel Radcliffe – destined to be The Most Famous Boy In England this summer as Harry Potter – as Pendle’s son, though he has little to do here.

By far the most bizarre cameo though is by Harold Pinter, as Harry’s dead mentor ‘Uncle Benny’, who keeps popping up to offer advice to Harry in times of stress, such as "Don’t tell the truth, ‘arry – people who tell the truth always get found out sooner or later…"

Adding greatly to the atmosphere of the film is the fact that all the exteriors were actually shot in Panama (described by one character as "Casablanca without heroes") – this also allows for comments on the ‘cocaine towers’ and various "launderettes" (i.e. banks) dotted around the city, as well as giving the film a distinctly exotic look, courtesy of Phillippe Rousselot’s impressive photography. The film isn’t afraid to take various political sideswipes, either, with several references to Noriega and the Bush (Snr) regime.

To sum up, then, this is worth seeing. Though it may be uneven in places and suffers from an obviously re-shot final section, it’s still an entertaining watch, particularly for its central performances.

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Content updated: 21/02/2020 13:05

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